A senior official of Japan's biggest physicians lobby arrived in North Korea by air on Saturday, with an eye to providing future medical aid to the country believed to be facing serious health care challenges.
Mitsuaki Maseki, chairman of the Japan Medical Association's house of delegates, is expected to visit hospitals in North Korea, along with seven former Japanese lawmakers, sources familiar with their itinerary said.
It is the first time for Japan's largest professional organization for physicians to send its senior official to North Korea to offer medical aid, according to Maseki. The visitors are slated to stay in North Korea through Thursday.
The move comes as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed eagerness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, "without conditions," to resolve issues including the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
The idea of the visit to North Korea was proposed by Yoshitake Yokokura, president of the medical association, who is close to Abe, the sources said, adding the government hopes that a possible provision of medical aid will help create trust between the two nations.
Hideki Miyazaki, a former upper house member of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters at Beijing international airport before leaving for Pyongyang that he also intends to talk with North Korean officials about "missing Japanese."
Miyazaki, who was once vice president of the association, said information about the group's visit has been conveyed to the prime minister's office.
Maseki, meanwhile, said he is keen to learn the real medical situation in North Korea, where he says the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis B has become serious.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 16,000 North Koreans died of tuberculosis in 2017.